George Wallace and the 1968 Election

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Presidential candidate George Wallace in 1968 (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
By Alexandra Piper, Hope College

Political leaders since the beginning have consistently politicized the Black Lives Matter movement, but the roots of racial tension and its politicization go farther back in American history. In 1968, when Alabama governor George Wallace ran for president as the American Independent Party candidate, he harnessed the discontent of a country in the midst of race riots and disorder. Wallace skillfully maneuvered around using blatantly racist language, but instead vaguely blamed African Americans and anarchists for the problems facing the country. Overall, George Wallace’s rhetorical strategy of coded racist language and appeal to white, Christian voters created a new mode of conservatism, one which has influenced the way Republican frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have politicized the Black Lives Matter movement in the 2016 election.

The Disorder of the 1960’s

George Wallace’s rise during the presidential election has roots in the social and political disorder of the 1960’s. First, the Vietnam War and the protests created an atmosphere of disillusionment within the country.[1] Socially, the Civil Rights movement heightened racial tensions. Historian Lewis Gould states, “The result was a high degree of apprehension among whites about the direction of the civil rights movement and mounting resentment at what they perceived as ingratitude among blacks for the sacrifices whites had made on their behalf.”[3] Crime also rose during this time, leaving Americans desiring a sense of law and order. Finally, these racial and class tensions grew out of President Johnson’s Great Society programs, which many middle to lower class white people felt left out of.[4] George Wallace understood this, and as historian Dan Carter states:


He sensed that millions of Americans felt betrayed and victimized by the sinister forces of change. He knew that a substantial percentage of American electorate despised the civil rights agitators… and recognized them as symptoms of a fundamental decline in the traditional cultural compass of God, family, and country, a decline reflected in the rising crime rates…moving always beneath the surface was the fear that blacks were moving beyond their safely encapsulated ghettos into “our” streets, “our” schools, “our” neighborhoods.[5]

Overall, these complex tensions allowed Governor George Wallace to play on the anger and fear of voters.

George Wallace Plate
A “Wallace for President” booster plate from the 1968 election. (Courtesy of Flickr)

Wallace’s Rhetorical Strategy

First, George Wallace attacked the perpetrators of disorder and loss of tradition or as he called them, “anarchists.” In a speech at Madison Square Garden in 1968, Wallace appealed to a loss of tradition and order, saying “Anarchy prevails today in the streets of the large cities of our country…The American people are not going to stand by and see the security of our nation imperiled.” [6] In the undertones of this speech, Wallace also attacked African Americans. As Lewis Gould states, “Wallace was careful not to make an overly racist appeal, but the language he used conveyed an unmistakable message to white audiences.”[7] When describing anarchy, Wallace did not state exactly who he is referring to, but in a time of race riots, he implied these anarchists included African Americans. Overall, Wallace’s ability to appeal to lower-to-middle class white voters by referring to the destruction of tradition by anarchy represents his ability to covertly politicize racial issues in 1968.

Second, Wallace created class distinctions, portraying working class Americans and policemen as victims. Dan Carter describes the divisions Wallace set up in his campaign, stating, “Whether he talked about busing, taxes, or prayer in the schools – George Wallace drove home his audience the great divide between the common people (at least the common white people) an the hypocritical elites – whether cultural or political.”[8] In an interview with The New York Times, Wallace stated:

The man goes out and works 25 years for a home, works every day and then his home is burned down, he is mad! He can’t walk in his neighborhood in most cities of the United States without fear of something happening to him. And the policeman who makes any effort to do anything about this crime often ends up being sued, demoted, fired or suspended.[10]

When setting up these tensions, Wallace blamed the African Americans and the elites for the problems and anarchy of the country. In turn, he acknowledged the suffering of white, working class Americans and the policemen at the hands of these protesters.

Video of George Wallace confronting protesters in the 1968 election

Wallace’s Impact on the 2016 Presidential Election

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2016 Presidential candidate Donald Trump. (Courtesy of Flickr)

This rhetoric and the new conservatism have influenced how the politicization of race and the Black Lives Matter movement has infiltrated today’s presidential politics. First, the influence of George Wallace on Donald Trump is clear, as they both use coded racist language. In The New York Times, historian Dan Carter discusses the striking similarities between the two politicians and their ability to rally fear and anger. While Carter does not address the racist language used by both, he does address the comparison that both figures are considered “politically correct” by their white, working class supporters.[11] Taking this comparison a step farther, author Toure writes of Donald Trump as a “leader of the White Lives Matter movement,” because of his ties with white supremacy, the demographic of his support, and his rhetorical strategy of focusing in on divisions with the idea that America needs to be made great again.[12] During the Baltimore riots, Trump described the protesters as “thugs” destroying the city, striking a comparison to Wallace’s use of the term “anarchists.”[13] While Donald Trump may not always blatantly address Black Lives Matter, his rhetoric and support have continued to politicize the issue, even leading Black Lives Matter activists to protest his rallies.[14] Trump may be more overt with his language, but without George Wallace’s trailblazing special rhetorical strategy of anger Trump may have no basis in modern conservatism.

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2016 Presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz. (Courtesy of Flickr)

In comparison, Ted Cruz directly addresses the Black Lives Matter movement and uses rhetoric comparable to that of George Wallace. Without addressing the Black Lives Matter movement, Cruz invokes the same anger towards elitism and African Americans as George Wallace did. Following the death of a cop in September, Cruz stated, “Cops across this country are feeling the assault…That is fundamentally wrong, and it is endangering the safety and security of us all.”[15] Cruz is not directly blaming the Black Lives Matter movement or African Americans, but his rhetoric reflects the new conservatism of George Wallace in the way he invokes elitism and victimizes law enforcement. In a more overt way, Cruz states:

If you look at the Black Lives Matter movement, one of the most disturbing things is more than one of their protests have embraced rabid rhetoric, rabid anti-police language, literally suggesting and embracing and celebrating the murder of police officers.[16]

Overall, the legacy of George Wallace’s angry conservatism is present in Cruz’s campaign, although Ted Cruz does directly address the racial issues of the Black Lives Matter movement in ways Wallace never did.

The angry conservatism of the Republican front-runners in the 2016 presidential race has shocked voters, and the Black Lives Matter movement has heated up in the last four years. To assume that these two are not intertwined in some way, or have similar historical roots is wrong: George Wallace is what they have in common. As a forefather of new, covertly angry conservatism, Wallace’s campaign shows how presidential candidates can politicize the issue of race. Both frontrunners, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, use rhetorical racist strategies, whether openly or coded. As Jeremy Mayer states, Wallace was the real winner of the 1968 election for “demonstrating the willingness for millions of angry whites to vote for a vulgar racist whose policy proposals were scarcely more than slogans.”[17] By understanding George Wallace in the 1968 election, we can better understand the political landscape of 2016, the conservative candidates that seek higher office, and the need for the Black Lives Matter movement in American society.

[1] Lewis L. Gould, 1968: The Election That Changed America, 2nd Edition, (Chicago, IL: Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group, 2010): 11.

[2] Gould, 1968, 14.

[3] Gould, 1968, 14.

[4] Gould, 1968, 20.

[5] Dan T. Carter, From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution 1963-1994, (Louisiana State University Press, 1996): 14-15.

[6] George C. Wallace, “Speech at Madison Square Garden,” (speech, October 4, 1968), American History Online, http://www.fofweb.com.

[7] Gould, 1968, 23.

[8] Dan T. Carter, “Legacy of Rage: George Wallace and the Transformation of American Politics,” The Journal of Southern History 62, no. 1 (February 1996): 10.

[9] Gould, 1968, 23.

[10] “George Wallace Interview with the New York Times,” New York Times, September 26, 1968, American History Online, http://www.fofweb.com.

[11] Dan Carter, “What Donald Trump Owes George Wallace,” The New York Times, January 8, 2016, accessed March 14, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/opinion/campaign-stops/what-donald-trump-owes-george-wallace.html?_r=0.

[12] Toure, “Donald Trump’s White Lives Matter Movement,” Huffington Post, March 18, 2106, accessed April 1, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/toure/donald-trump-white-lives-matter_b_9499508.html.

[13] Donald Trump, Twitter post, April 27, 2015, 11:38 P.M., https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump.

[14] Jeremy Diamond, “More than 2 dozen Black Lives Matter protesters disrupt Trump rally,” CNN, March 4, 2016, accessed March 14, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/04/politics/donald-trump-protesters-black-lives-matter/.

[15] David Weigel and Katie Zezima, “Cruz leads a GOP backlash to ‘Black Lives Matter’ rhetoric,” The Washington Post, Septebmer 1, 2015, accessed March 14, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/09/01/cruz-leads-a-gop-backlash-to-black-lives-matter-rhetoric.

[16] Ryan J. Reilly, “Ted Cruz: Black Lives Matter ‘Literally Celebrates Dead Cops,” The Huffington Post, October 14, 2015, accessed March 14, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/ted-cruz-black-lives-matter_us_561ea191e4b0c5a1ce619a8f.

[17] Mayer, “Nixon Rides the Backlash to Victory,” 351.

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